Last June 15th, Daniel Ortega, the President of Nicaragua, held a ceremony in Managua to announce his newest and most audacious plan to help the country’s poor: a transoceanic canal, stretching from the Atlantic Coast to the Pacific, a few hundred miles north of the Panama Canal. “This is a project,” he promised, “that will bring well-being, prosperity, and happiness to the Nicaraguan people.” The last time Ortega attracted the world’s attention, it was as Ronald Reagan’s great adversary in the Contra war of the eighties: a fighter “against the domination of the capitalists of our country, in collusion with the U.S. government—i.e., imperialism.” In those days, Salman Rushdie described him as looking like “a bookworm who has done a body-building course.” Now his face has thickened and roughened, and his hair is thinner. His politics have changed, too. A former Marxist, he presides over an economy in which nearly anything goes. But he keeps up his anti-imperialist credentials, with fiery rhetoric about “los yankis” and “larevolución” and “el pueblo.” Last summer, when the National Security Agency whistle-blower Edward Snowden was pondering his options during an extended stay at the Moscow airport, Nicaragua’s government offered him asylum.
For a dedicated practitioner of political influence, Ortega has little appetite for making speeches; his wife, Rosario Murillo, usually speaks on his behalf, in public and in a daily media address she gives. But the magnitude of the plan called for a grand gesture. Ortega’s canal would be the largest civil-engineering and construction project in the world. To lead it, and to bring in money and expertise, he had recruited an obscure Chinese tycoon named Wang Jing, and two days before the ceremony, the National Assembly had approved a concession that put a large swath of the country at Wang’s disposal as a building site. Yet for months, as rumors about the canal spread through Nicaragua, Wang had not appeared in public. And so Ortega was obligated to prove that the man anointed the country’s savior was not, as his critics put it, “a phantom.”
At the ceremony, Murillo—a former poet whose oratorical style combines the ecclesiastical and the stream-of-consciousness—opened the proceedings. “A very good afternoon, dear Nicaraguan families, who follow us on the television channels, on the radio, on all the means of communication, on this historic day for Nicaragua,” she said. “A day of prophecies coming true, a day in which dreams are being fulfilled, a day in which the doors to the future are opening with rights, with justice, with liberty, dignity, and fraternity.” She went on like this for some time. Finally, she handed the microphone to her husband, whom she called Comandante Daniel.
Ortega wore his usual suède jacket over a collarless white shirt. In the manner of a boxing referee declaring the winner of a fight, he held up the hand of a round-faced Chinese man in a black suit and a blue tie. “I want to welcome a brother born in that great nation the People’s Republic of China,” he said, in a flat, braying voice. “Here is our brother Wang Jing. Here is the phantom, in flesh and blood!” Ortega reminded the audience that the Americans had once planned a canal in Nicaragua, but had built it in Panama instead. Now it was Nicaragua’s chance to see its dreams fulfilled. The country was very poor, he said, and “with poverty and economic dependency there can be no sovereignty.” The canal would allow Nicaragua to finally achieve “total and definitive independence.” Behind the two men was a wall emblazoned with the logo of Wang Jing’s new firm, H.K.N.D.—the Hong Kong Nicaragua Canal Development Investment Company.
Nicaragua’s political opposition has loudly objected to the prospective canal. The novelist Sergio Ramírez, who served as Ortega’s Vice-President for six years before breaking with him, told me that he thought it was all a cuento chino—a “Chinese story,” local slang for a lie. But he was concerned enough to draft a manifesto, claiming that the canal violated the country’s sovereignty. Signed by dozens of prominent Nicaraguans, the manifesto pointed out that the concession, approved without consulting the public, granted Wang sweeping rights over any lands he chose, even those owned by private citizens. Ramírez suspected Ortega of using the canal to keep himself in office and also, possibly, to enrich himself. “Ortega wants to make it appear that his tenure in power is indispensable in order to consummate this long-term project,” he said. “But this is a white elephant. It is not known when its construction will begin, much less when it will end, or what kind of business deals or financial manipulations may be hiding behind the curtain.”
At the press conference, and in other appearances, Wang has emphasized his concern for Nicaragua’s sovereignty, its environment, and its people. “We move forward with complete confidence—throughout ancient and modern history, at the start of each new era, a new milestone, like a butterfly that breaks out of its cocoon,” he said. “The world will change through us; we shall bring more happiness, freedom, and joy to the planet.” Wang, who is forty-one, had no record of accomplishing anything on the scale of a canal; indeed, he seemed to have little public record of any kind. But he was confident that he would be able to raise money in China and elsewhere, and that he would “make every investor smile broadly.” The canal would be completed in five years, he promised, and for the Nicaraguan people it would change everything, bringing tens of thousands of jobs. Unable to restrain himself, he noted that the Nicaraguans had dreamed of a canal “for hundreds of years, and suddenly a Chinese guy shows up and has a plan.”
The lure of a canal began long before the modern state of Nicaragua was born. As the conquistadors plundered the New World, they ferried gold to the Atlantic Coast across the narrow Isthmus of Panama—an arduous crossing, by foot and by mule. Hernán Cortés wrote to Emperor Carlos V, “Whoever possesses the passage between the two oceans can consider himself the owner of the world.” In 1581, the Spaniards explored a possible route in Nicaragua, where the San Juan River flowed to the Atlantic from a huge inland lake, separated from the Pacific by just twelve miles of land. Half a century later, an engineer named Diego de Mercado made a survey. Noting a difference of a hundred and thirty-eight feet in the sea level of the Pacific and the Atlantic Coasts, he determined that the project was technically impractical.
But by the time Nicaragua gained independence from Spain, in 1821, the new technologies of the industrial revolution had made the engineering seem possible. Since then, Nicaragua’s leaders have granted at least seven “exclusive concessions” to foreign entrepreneurs. Simón Bolívar proposed a canal financed by Latin-American capital, seeing it as a step toward his dream of a United States of Latin America. Louis Napoleon Bonaparte proclaimed, “Nicaragua can become, better than Constantinople, the necessary route of the great commerce of the world.”
In the California gold rush of 1849, tens of thousands of fortune-seekers from Europe and the East found that their only way to the Pacific Coast was a dangerous, months-long voyage around Cape Horn, and a number of hastily assembled transport syndicates began vying to shorten the trip. Two such groups, backed by a U.S. government subsidy, were given sole rights to the route across Panama, carrying passengers, by steamship and canoe, between New York Harbor and San Francisco in five weeks. Cornelius Vanderbilt, the American steamship and railroad tycoon, developed a route across the Nicaraguan isthmus. Within two years, he was boasting of transporting two thousand passengers a month from New York to San Francisco in twenty-five days, managing the water passages by steamer and the land crossing by stagecoach.
Vanderbilt had initially wanted to build a canal, and had dredged a shortcut from the Atlantic Coast to the San Juan River. Soon, the United States took up the idea of a canal, and Congress began trying to decide whether to build it in Panama or Nicaragua. In 1901, the Nicaraguan government gave the U.S. government exclusive rights to build a canal there. But before the issue went to a vote the chief of the powerful pro-Panama lobby mailed each U.S. senator a one-centavo Nicaraguan postage stamp, featuring an image of Lake Managua, luridly illuminated by an exploding volcano. Panama, which had no volcanoes in the canal zone, won by a margin of eight votes.
For Nicaragua, though, the final blow didn’t come until 1914, after the Panama Canal was completed. That August, the country’s President, General Emiliano Chamorro, signed a pact with Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan, which granted the United States the exclusive right, in perpetuity, to build a Nicaraguan canal. The deal, which paid three million dollars, effectively prevented Nicaragua from competing with the Panama Canal, and inspired the creation of a bitter epithet: vendepatria, which means “seller of the fatherland.”
Augusto César Sandino—modern Nicaragua’s greatest hero—also dreamed of a canal, an exclusively Latin-American project that would help free the region from outside influence. From 1927 to 1933, Sandino waged a guerrilla campaign against the invading U.S. Marines. After they retreated, he agreed to peace talks; as one condition, he demanded that the Bryan-Chamorro treaty be nullified. The attempt failed, and soon afterward Sandino was murdered, betrayed by the National Guard commander General Anastasio Somoza García. Within two years, Somoza García had seized power, becoming the first of three Somozas to dominate Nicaragua.
As a child, Ortega idolized Sandino, and he has spent a career invoking Sandino’s legacy as he promises to remake the country. On Tiscapa, a hill that looms over Managua, he erected a black steel silhouette of Sandino, in the spot where Somoza once had a fortress home and an underground jail for political prisoners. The statue is visible for miles. On a recent visit, I walked around its base, past a small tank once owned by Somoza, a large artillery piece, and a series of cannons.
As a teen-ager, Ortega joined the Sandinista National Liberation Front, or F.S.L.N., a guerrilla force named in Sandino’s honor. In 1967, at twenty-two, he attempted to rob a bank, in order to raise funds for the cause. He was captured, and spent the next seven years in prison. (He wrote a poem about his time there, called “I Never Saw Managua When Miniskirts Were in Fashion.”) Ortega lacked a natural leader’s charisma, but he was wily and determined. After he was released, as part of a prisoner exchange, he took charge of the F.S.L.N., and after the guerrillas overthrew Somoza, in 1979, he became the head of the new revolutionary junta.
Once in power, the Sandinistas adopted radical Marxist policies, and aligned themselves with Cuba and the Soviet Union. In the countryside, conservative peasants and Somoza loyalists began a resistance movement, which coalesced into an army known as the Contras. Nicaragua slid toward civil war. In 1983, on the fourth anniversary of the Sandinistas’ “revolutionary triumph,” I watched Ortega give a speech in Managua. Punching a fist in the air, he barked out warnings that the people had to prepare to fight a “new invasion” by the U.S. Marines.
Ortega wasn’t being paranoid. Reagan had been doing everything he could to undermine the Sandinistas, from funding and arming the Contras to hiring mercenaries to fly them weapons; that same year, the C.I.A. was caught mining Nicaragua’s harbors. The Contras were brutal enough to beat or stab prisoners to death after making them dig their own graves; one field commander told me that he used fourteen-year-old boys as executioners, because they were “too young to have a conscience.” But Reagan saw the Contras as “freedom fighters,” who would help save the continent from Communism. In one memorable speech, he appealed to the American people for humanitarian aid, and raised the threat of losing the Panama Canal. “Using Nicaragua as a base, the Soviets and Cubans can become the dominant power in the crucial corridor between North and South America,” he said. From there, he warned, they could “threaten the Panama Canal, interdict our vital Caribbean sea lanes, and, ultimately, move against Mexico.”
In 1984, Ortega was elected President, and the U.S. Congress finally banned covert aid to the Contras. Reagan was undeterred. He ordered a withering trade embargo against Nicaragua, and senior White House officials began a clandestine effort to finance the Contras. When the plot was discovered, in November, 1986, it dominated the American news for months, playing out as a tragicomic farce. In simplest form, the scheme was to evade the congressional ban by selling missiles to Ayatollah Khomeini’s regime, in Iran, and passing along the proceeds to the Contras. The operation, devised in large part by a former Marine colonel named Oliver North, was not without lapses in tradecraft. At one point, North’s secretary, Fawn Hall, transposed two digits in the number of a Swiss bank account, and a large contribution to the Contras, sent by the Sultan of Brunei, was mistakenly delivered to a Swiss businessman. On a secret trip to Tehran, the former national-security adviser Robert McFarlane carried gifts for Khomeini: a Bible and, to symbolize the reopening of relations, a cake in the shape of a key.
Meanwhile, the war in Nicaragua destroyed the economy and cost tens of thousands of lives. By 1990, Ortega had agreed to peace talks and new elections, but Nicaraguans were fed up: they elected Violeta Chamorro, the widow of an anti-Somoza newspaper editor whose killing, in 1978, had galvanized the Sandinista guerrilla movement. In Ortega’s final two months in office, he pushed through an enormous redistribution of Nicaragua’s wealth. Peasants were given tiny plots of land, while Ortega and his confederates appropriated vast swaths of real estate and millions of dollars from the state’s accounts. When Chamorro took over, the central bank had only $3.2 million left. Even the spotlights from the state television network had been looted. The country was so thoroughly hollowed out that the episode has become known as la piñata.
There is an old Spanish adage that Ortega’s critics invoke to describe his pursuit of power: hierba mala nunca muere, or “weeds never die.” Ortega ran for reëlection in 1996 and 2001, and lost both times. But he became the head of the opposition in the National Assembly, and, promising to “govern from below,” he cut deals with former enemies. After he lost the 1996 election, to the businessman Arnoldo Alemán, Ortega made a non-aggression pact with him, and used the alliance to reduce the threshold for electoral victory to thirty-five per cent of the vote. The change proved crucial: in the elections of 2006, Ortega beat Alemán, with only thirty-eight per cent of the vote. After Alemán left the Presidency, he was convicted of corruption. The Supreme Court, under Ortega’s influence, threw out the conviction.
As Ortega plotted a return to power, he cultivated the right wing, especially the Catholic Church. In 2006, he backed legislation that led to an extraordinarily strict abortion ban. These days, Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, an old opponent from the Reagan years, appears alongside Ortega and Murillo in public, blessing whatever they do. A former official in Ortega’s administration said, “The conservative peasants who thirty years ago may well have shouted ‘Long live Reagan’ may today shout ‘Viva Ortega.’ ”
Although Ortega’s party was widely accused of fraud in municipal elections in 2008, he secured a firm majority in the Assembly. Like most former dictatorships in the region, Nicaragua places strict limits on successive Presidential terms, but in 2009 Ortega successfully lobbied the Supreme Court to declare the pertinent articles of the constitution invalid. Two years later, he stood for reëlection and won.
Early in his Presidency, Ortega signed up with the Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez’s regional economic bloc. In exchange, the bloc has given him half a billion dollars’ worth of oil subsidies annually. His critics, who describe the subsidy as a personal slush fund, say that the money is crucial to his political survival. “The strength of this regime lies in the country’s poverty,” Arturo Cruz, Ortega’s former Ambassador to the U.S., explained. A Johns Hopkins-educated political scientist, Cruz speaks of Ortega with grudging admiration. “Ortega is the last caudillo standing. He is a father figure for the campesinos—he can resolve their needs. He has been clever about knowing how to distribute the scarcities with more abundance than other politicians.” The expectations of the poor are modest, he said. “It can be resolved for many people with a few pieces of roofing tin and a handful of nails. The voter thinks, Now I won’t get wet. And when it rains he thinks of Ortega.”
Ortega, in his second consecutive five-year term, governs under the uniquely ecumenical slogan “Cristiana, Socialista, y Solidaria.” It is emblazoned on government billboards in the First Lady’s official color scheme: fuchsia, blue, yellow, and purple. Ortega’s chicanery sometimes elicits disapproval abroad, but, since the end of the Cold War, Nicaragua has been on a geostrategic par with Burkina Faso; in other words, it doesn’t matter much. There have been brief moments when it returned to international prominence. In 1998, Hurricane Mitch devastated the country, killing three thousand people. That same year, Zoilamérica Narvaez, Ortega’s thirty-year-old stepdaughter, accused him publicly of having sexually abused her since she was eleven. Ortega, then the opposition leader, ignored the charges and, with Murillo’s help, succeeded in vilifying his stepdaughter as a neurotic liar.
Ortega was damaged by the scandal, and, over the years, most of his original Sandinista comrades have abandoned him, put off by his crass behavior and his changing principles. But he has always managed to find new allies, make new arrangements. Today, whatever opposition remains is too fractious to be very effective. Sergio Ramírez, Ortega’s former Vice-President, told me, “Ortega outsmarted us all.”
The Nicaraguan government hasn’t talked much to its citizens about the canal, and, when it has, the messages have often relied on the language of faith. Just before the canal concession was approved, Murillo described the project in her daily address: “This will represent the true application of Christianity, of Socialism, of Solidarity, in that we will live well—secure, healthy, beautiful, clean, beyond poverty of any kind.” This suggests a radical transformation. About the size of Alabama, Nicaragua is the largest nation in Central America, and, with nearly half its six million people living below the poverty line, it is poorer than any country in the Western Hemisphere except Haiti. Between the Pacific Coast and the Atlantic Coast, much of the landscape is a jungle wilderness, bisected by rivers and swamps. In the countryside, oxcarts remain a common form of transport, and one out of two people lives on less than a dollar a day.
In December, driving with a Nicaraguan companion along a dirt road in the backcountry, I stopped to offer a lift to an elderly woman, whose burnished skin suggested indigenous blood. She was wearing a long traditional dress, and she was moving slowly, with the help of a walking stick. When I asked if she wanted a ride, she thanked me, and said, “Some alms would be better, son.” I dug into my pocket for a hundred-cordoba note, worth about four American dollars. She looked at it bemusedly, and asked, “What is it?” Shocked, my companion tried to explain what paper money was. She looked quizzical, and kept on walking.
In Managua, the streets are littered with a bewildering array of signs and billboards; everything imaginable is for sale. Tucked between the Dunkin’ Donuts franchises and the gas stations are “autohotels”—El Casanova, El Secreto del Amor—where businessmen take their secretaries for lunchtime trysts. There are huge electrical pylons everywhere, but no crosswalks, and so pedestrians scamper like deer across intersections. At the traffic lights, children run between the cars to form human pyramids, to clown for donations from motorists, or simply to beg.
Little evidence remains of the idealistic Sandinista revolution, apart from ubiquitous billboards emblazoned with Ortega’s smiling face. Sometimes he is pictured standing next to Murillo. A thin woman with long frizzy red hair, she is usually festooned with necklaces and a ring on every finger, and clad in her characteristic colors, which she says give off “good vibrations.” In a traffic circle on Avenida Bolívar, the city’s main boulevard, stands an enormous plastic sculpture of Hugo Chávez’s face; it rests upon a multicolored symbol known as a Circle of Life, apparently adapted from a Mayan hieroglyph. The face is rendered in Homer Simpson yellow. Looming around it are five huge, stylized metal trees, painted bright yellow and studded with thousands of light bulbs in Murillo’s official hues. Like the yellow Chávez, the Trees of Life, as everyone calls them, were devised by Murillo. The National Assembly building and the trees in the surrounding parks are strung with more lights, and at night the entire area glows like a Disney fairyland.
Throughout November, in preparation for the annual festival known as La Gritería—a celebration of the Virgin Mary’s Immaculate Conception—teams of government workers erected elaborately decorated plywood chapels along Avenida Bolívar. All were painted with the holiday’s traditional refrain—“What causes such happiness? Mary’s conception!”—and with images of Mary in beatific guises. The Ministry of Telecommunications had surrounded her with satellites; the Ministry of Defense depicted her floating next to an airplane. Halfway down the avenue, one little chapel featured a painted tableau of Mary in a coterie of angels. They shimmered together in a blue sky in front of a smoking volcano, below the prayer “Virgin Mary: Bless the Interoceanic Great Canal!”
One scorching-hot afternoon in December, several hundred people gathered at the Hugo Chávez traffic circle, protected from the sun by hats and parasols. Some carried Nicaraguan flags; others displayed handwritten signs (“Ortega Dictador!”) to the passing traffic. A few days earlier, Ortega had presented the National Assembly with a sweeping package of constitutional reforms. The proposed alterations, which became known as “the big bundle,” would enshrine the terms of the canal concession in the constitution. They would also allow Ortega to be reëlected indefinitely, and to name active-duty Army officers as judges. Nicaragua’s political opposition was in a state of near-hysteria. At the protest, venders sold white Styrofoam hats with the word “No” spelled out in red letters.
The crowd, shouting slogans, walked to the side street that led to the National Assembly, where the parliamentarians had convened to discuss the reforms. A cordon of police formed a barrier there, and a woman struggled with a policewoman, who knocked her down. More police and demonstrators entered the fracas, shouting and punching, until the protesters surged forward and the police line crumbled. There were shots in the air, and the din of vuvuzelas, as the crowd ran toward the gates of the Assembly building, where more police had formed a phalanx. Several tough-looking protesters—former Contra fighters, apparently—fired handmade bazookas over the heads of the police, causing loud explosions, followed by cheers. A young man and woman spray-painted the wall of the Assembly building: “What is the Assembly? A bunch of pigs!” and “Ortega Vendepatria!”
A couple of days later, I met with Dora María Téllez to discuss the reform proposal. One of Nicaragua’s most distinctive modern political figures, Téllez was a young medical student when, in 1978, she helped the Sandinistas take fifteen hundred hostages in the National Assembly, to be exchanged for imprisoned comrades. After serving as minister of health in the Sandinista government, Téllez broke with Ortega in the nineteen-nineties, forming the Sandinista Renovation Movement, which attracted other disenchanted loyalists but effected little change.
Téllez wore a man’s plaid shirt and jeans, her white hair cut short. She told me that the bill represented a formalization of Ortega’s control of most of the state’s institutions: the Army, investments, the courts. “Ortega’s logic is the logic of total power,” Téllez said. “If he does some deals with the private sector, it’s a temporary thing. His logic is ‘If I can have a bank, why should you have it?’ ” Ortega’s children—he has seven with Murillo—own or direct a number of key media companies and advertising firms. Murillo is in charge of government communications. “You have to understand: this functions like a dictatorship,” Téllez said. “With a little more elegance, maybe, but a dictatorship nonetheless.”
The canal concession, ratified in three days without any public consultation, had caused virtually no protests. “People here in Nicaragua don’t really react to things on paper,” Téllez said. “They react when things start happening. Here it will happen when the expropriation of land begins.” She pulled out a binder that contained the constitutional reforms, and showed me where, in the clause concerning the state’s respect for indigenous “property rights” in the Atlantic Coast region, the word “property” had vanished.
It was easy to spot which parts of the reform bill came from Ortega. “All the parts concerning the military and extending term limits, the parts dealing with power—those are his,” she explained. But Murillo had had a hand in it, too, Téllez said. She leafed through her binder to a section about the environment and pointed to the words “Mother Earth.” “Rosario’s bits are easy to spot,” she said, laughing. “If it reads like someone smoked a big green joint, that’s hers.”
The reforms overturned a constitutional stricture against foreign soldiers being garrisoned in Nicaragua, Téllez pointed out. “The Chinese must be throwing themselves a party right now,” she said. “Since the concession doesn’t specify geographical limits, it effectively gives them the whole country to do what they want. What do they have to pay in taxes? Nothing. What control does Nicaragua have? None.” Within the canal zone, the Chinese “will have the commercial interest and absolute control.” But, as Wang’s partner, Téllez said, Ortega could begin making profits in property speculation even before construction began. “The only reason Daniel Ortega would have signed the canal concession is if he is the real owner of the project. Because stupid he is not.”
On December 10th, the bill passed the Assembly by a vote of sixty-four to twenty-six, and it was ratified on January 28th. Within hours, the veteran commentator Sofia Montenegro tweeted, “The canal law is now ‘legal,’ giving sovereignty to foreigners and allowing expropriation.” Under pressure, the Assembly had altered some of the proposed language, but the intent seemed unchanged. Although the word “property” was restored to the clause about indigenous rights, Wang retained the right to build the canal wherever he chose. Ortega had been forced to give up on naming Army officers to the judiciary, but he won the right to place them in the executive branch. Téllez was dismayed. “Power is like Viagra: nobody buys it not to use it,” she said. “If they have proposed to put military men into the executive, it means that they plan to do it.”
Manuel Coronel Kautz, the president of the Nicaraguan Canal Commission, received me graciously one morning in his office. Situated in a walled compound, the office had official trappings, but, except for Kautz and a secretary, it appeared deserted. Dominating one long wall was a map of Nicaragua with a bold blue line that traced the traditionally proposed canal route up the San Juan River, along the Costa Rican border. Kautz, a lean man of eighty-one with piercing blue eyes, hastened to clarify that the San Juan route was one of six routes under consideration by Wang. The government of Costa Rica was fervently opposed to it, he said ruefully, so it seemed unlikely.
Kautz shared the national wistfulness about a canal. In 1970, after the ignominious Bryan-Chamorro treaty was nullified, some Americans had explored the possibility of making a canal with atomic bombs, but, Kautz noted wryly, “eventually, they were advised that it was not a good idea to proceed.” A decade later, a Brazilian company issued a proposal, but, “with Nicaragua in the midst of the Contra war and in a confrontation with the U.S., it was not the right time.”
Several of Ortega’s predecessors had promoted such a project, with little success. Ortega’s coup was finding a sponsor. In planning the canal, he wanted to be faithful to Sandino’s vision, Kautz said. “We had the idea of proposing it to those countries with an ideological affinity with Nicaragua. That included Brazil, which transports a lot of iron ore to China, not through the Panama Canal but around the Horn. The first country we went to was China.” Although Nicaragua does not have formal diplomatic relations with China, he said, “we had a relationship with the Communist Party, and Daniel Ortega had cultivated good relations there.”
Ortega and Wang apparently made contact in 2012, when several Nicaraguan officials visited China, accompanied by Ortega’s son Laureano—an operatic tenor who also advises ProNicaragua, an agency charged by the government with promoting overseas investment. They went as private citizens, but, according to a Nicaraguan source with close ties to the government, they were invited to a meeting with four men they understood to be a high-level delegation from the Communist Party. One of them asked to speak privately with Laureano. “That man was Wang Jing,” the source said. Laureano did not return for nearly two hours. Later, when friends asked him about the meeting, he said only that he had been given a message to deliver to his father.
The next fall, Wang travelled to Nicaragua to see Ortega, and a series of meetings followed. Kautz said, “Wang Jing impressed us as a young revolutionary who could take control of this kind of project. He made an excellent impression on both the President and myself. He is young and clean.” Wang registered his canal-development firm in Beijing and a holding company in the Cayman Islands. In September, a Memorandum of Understanding for a canal concession was signed in Managua, and a few days later Ortega announced the deal, saying, “The People’s China is a source of inspiration, of development, of growth for humanity.” Kautz said that Wang “relatively quickly” produced contracts for feasibility studies with four major international firms: the U.S. lobbying firms McLarty and McKinsey Associates; the U.K. sustainability experts Environmental Resources Management; and, for the technical work, the China Railway Construction Corporation.
The agreement with Wang was part of a broader commercial relationship. As the canal was announced, Laureano revealed that Wang would bid in an upcoming government auction for a contract to build a telecommunications network; a month later, the government announced that Wang had won. Wang promised to begin work by 2014, and an office building near the National Assembly was painted and spruced up for his use. During my visit, it sat empty, and there has been little apparent activity on the contract.
The Assembly released the details of the canal concession in the government gazette, but only after it had been ratified. Benjamin Lanzas, the head of the Nicaraguan Chamber of Construction, is in favor of the canal, but he told me that he was baffled by the air of secrecy. “The government has overwhelming support for the canal from the Nicaraguan people, and from the private sector, too,” he said. “If something’s good, why hide it?” Many of the canal’s opponents saw the agreement as inexplicably generous. Wang’s concession allows for the construction of two ports, a railroad, an oil pipeline, and roads; it also includes a number of free-trade zones. Under the agreement, H.K.N.D. owns the canal at the outset, and the Nicaraguans reclaim a one-per-cent stake each year. They would need half a century to gain control of the canal that runs through their land. In the meantime, Wang is permitted to sell his rights to whomever he chooses: another company or another country.
Ofrecemos en relato incluido en el libro ‘Antología Personal. 50 años de cuentos’.
La entrega del Premio Cervantes 2017, a Sergio Ramírez no hizo más que recordarnos la calidad literaria del narrador nicaragüense. Heredero de la tradición de Augusto Monterroso y Julio Cortázar, es un notable cuentista dispuesto a despejar cualquier duda al respecto con Antología persona. 50 años de cuentos (Océano), volumen que reúne algunos de sus mejores relatos.
Con autorización de editorial Océano ofrecemos ‘El Centerfielder’ a nuestros lectores.
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